Local News

WWII Bomber Pilot Honored for Courage

Posted July 20, 2007 7:39 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2007 8:18 p.m. EDT

— A retired airman in Fayetteville was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on Friday in honor of his bravery in the skies over Germany during World War II.

Col. Vincent Fonke was flying a B-17 bomber over Germany on Aug. 16, 1944, when his fighter escort had to return to base because they were running low on fuel.

"The escorts that were to pick them up were still five minutes away. That five-minute window was all the enemy needed," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelly, who presented Fonke with his medal.

Gunfire barraged the B-17. Flames engulfed its right wing, and an engine was knocked out. The plane was losing altitude fast, so Fonke ordered his eight-man crew to to bail out.

Fonke was the last to jump. Seconds later, the plane exploded.

"It must have made my hair stand up straight," Fonke recalled Friday. "The only thing I could think of was getting them out of this airplane immediately."

The Germans took Fonke prisoner, beat him, interrogated him and put him in solitary confinement. Eight months later and 40 pounds lighter, he was rescued.

After years of telling about his experience, Fonke was encouraged last year to apply for the Distinguished Flying Cross. Members of 2nd District Congressman Bob Etheridge’s office gathered documents and narratives from survivors of the incident and presented the evidence to the Air Force.

David Fonke said the award is a dream come true for his father.

“He joins an elite group that defines our country’s history. Now he’s a part of that history,” David Fonke said.

Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Orville and Wilbur Wright are among the other recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded for "heroism or extraordinary achievement" in flight.

“The cross, of course, symbolizes sacrifice. The propeller symbolizes flight,” Kelly said.

Vincent Fonke, who also served in the Air Force in Korea and Vietnam, dismissed any suggestion that he was a hero, calling his actions part of the job.

“I’m just very happy that I had the ability to respond to whatever their call was,” he said. “The brain says you got a big responsibility – get the people out of this airplane.”

But David Fonke, who grew up listening to his father recount his experience in Germany, said he supports the notion that his father is a military hero.

“Every time he tells the story, my heart swells with pride, and I’ve heard the story a lot,” he said.